by Karen Rubin
After the hour-long tour deep within the underground Wonderland of the Luray Caverns you come back up to the “world.” Your tour of the wondrous has only just begun.
This is the yin-yang of Luray Caverns – the juxtaposition of a natural wonder against these manmade marvels.
The Luray Caverns has been drawing tourists from near and far for 130 years, but in the last decade or so it has grown into this fabulously full destination with a variety of attractions, all superb in quality and authentic in their own way – the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum, the Luray Valley Museum, Garden Maze, Ropes Course and even a Singing Tower – making for a day or more of complete enrichment of mind and body. (Your ticket to the caverns also admits you to the Car and Carriage Museum and to the Luray Valley Museum.)
After stopping at the lemonade stand or to buy an ice cream or fudge, you go next to the Car and Carriage Caravan Museum.
I am a huge fan of vintage car collections – some of my favorites are the Owls Head Transportation Museum in Owls Head, Maine; the Heritage Plantation in Sandwich, Massachusetts and the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, TN. This collection is like nothing I’ve ever seen – distinguished by the wagons, bicycles, sleighs and various forms of land-based transportation.
The best of these collections are personal, and this one was built on one man’s fascination with antique transportation. Fired with his passion for history, beginning in the 1950s, H.T.N. Graves, who was president of Luray Caverns Corporation, set out with his staff to locate and purchase a collection deemed important to the history of travel. He wanted to engender among the thousands of visitors to Luray Caverns a new appreciation and understanding of man’s transportation experience over a 200 year period and how transportation has been a great agent in America’s interpretation of freedom and the notion of the “wide open road.”
Among the highlights is an 1840 Conestoga Wagon; a wagon that could hold 20 passengers and luggage. and the oldest carriage on the continent, the 1727 Portuguese Nobility Carriage.
The historical notes and commentary that are provided are also fascinating For example, for a horse-drawn carriage, an 1860 panel boat Victorian carriage, typical of the ones in the South.
“The horses had to be inconspicuously colored and nearly alike as possible and almost same gait. It was bad form to use a brake so horses had to take stroke of stopping.”
An 1892 Benz, a 1908 Baker electric, a 1913 Stanley Steamer and a 1925 Rolls Royce – in fact, every item is stunning and fantastic.
There is an enormous 1880 Sleigh with graceful lines like a swan; a Horse tricycle – built in the mid 1920s for clowns in circus and some of the oldest bicycles in existence: a Dexler velocipede bicycle, patented by William van Anden in 1869, the first free-wheeling drive bicycle.
There is a 1900 “Mountain Wagon” that was used to bring tourists up Mount Washington in New Hampshire; a 1906 Peugeot where the seats face each other, a 1903 Speedwall Roadster
There is a 1908 Delaunay Belleville, custom made in France for Baron Rosenkrantz, who brought it to the US, where it traveled over 300,000 miles.
A 1906 Cadillac, Model ‘M’, Double Tulip Touring, 7 HP, made in Detroit, Michigan by Cadillac Motor Car Co., originally cost $950
You can see a 1904 Cadillac which sold for $900 (about two-years’ pay); a 1906 Ford that sold for $500
There is a rare Model “N” that was started with a crank.
The 1925 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost – Pall Mall Touring, exuding glamor, belonged to one of the most popular Hollywood actresses of the Silent Screen era, and the richest woman of the movie industry at the time, Pola Negri. The car was made by Rolls-Royce of America, Inc. in Springfield, Massachusetts.
It’s simply a marvelous exhibit.
Luray Valley Museum
The even bigger surprise is the Luray Valley Museum – the newest addition to this most amazing collection of Shenandoah Valley artifacts – either made here or used here – from Indian times through the 1920s.
You begin this tour back in time at the log Stonyman building which houses an overview of the Valley’s history, supplemented with historic documents, decorative arts, items of clothing and artifacts. The museum displays items in chronologically from pre-contact Native peoples to life in the bustling 1920s.
The treasured item, though, is a 1536 Swiss bible in the German vernacular – believed to be one of the oldest printed bibles in vernacular language. It belonged the Abraham Strickler, whose great grandson, Jacob Strickler (1770-1842) was a farmer/minister and parochial school teacher. The bible is evidence of American religious tolerance and connects the Valley’s history and development with the European immigrants who settled the region from Pennsylvania through the ports of the northeast.
You are reminded of the Indians who lived in this area for thousands of years, with a display of Native American tools – stone axes among them – collected from the area.
There is a display of Long Rifles made in the Shenandoah Valley (even though they are known as Kentucky Rifles), from 1790, 1785, 1747, and so on
You see the original land grants to this area, from Lord Fairfax dating from 1750. George Washington surveyed area at request of Lord Fairfax.
You see “for sale” advertisement from June 3d 1835 for the Winchester furnace and mills; pottery, furniture, folk medicine, a display of birth and baptismal objects – which are like links to these ancestors.
In a section about the Civil War (the Battle of New Market was fought very near here), there is a quote from Gen Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson, “If this valley is lost, Virginia is lost.”
You learn that VM1 Cadet Thomas Garland Jefferson, a descendent of Thomas Jefferson, 17 years old was mortally wounded at Battle of New Market (just down the mountain road from Luray).
The Civil War exhibit includes a slavery section focused on the life of one slave: Britany Veney, who was born a slave in the Luray area around 1813, lived for 40 years in bondage in Page County but “died free in Massachusetts in 1916.”
The museum is actually part of an emerging 19th century farming village of historically significant buildings, laid out much like a village would be – just begging for costume interpreters to complete the experience of a living history museum.
The seven acre site houses nearly a dozen relocated, reconstructed and newly constructed structures which recreate pioneer life in this area. The Elk Run Dunkard Church, circa 1825, served as temporary quarters for both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War as attested by the signatures that still scatter the interior. In adjacent areas is the 1835 home of the county’s first Delegate to the Virginia General Assembly and a restoration of the Hamburg Regular School, the area’s first school for African American children. An acquisition from the Smithsonian Institution, a gazebo which depicts Welsh construction, a large threshing barn, a blacksmith’s shop, and a corn crib complete the community.
A recreated mining station at The Stonyman Mining Company provides a delightful opportunity for kids to try panning. This giant sluice, used by pioneer prospectors to separate out gold, affords a hands-on activity for children and adults.
As the project evolves, the property’s original Shenk Farm House will be furnished and opened to the public for viewing.
Most impressive is the one room school house – the actual Hamburg, VA Regular School building. Built around 1880, it was the Page County “black” school. The notes say that Ralph Lawson who attended the school in early 1900s owned it as an adult. His daughters, Marion Johnson and Conchita Field, both went into education. The schoolhouse was acquired and moved to this site in 2010.
Another extraordinary building is the Elk Run Dunkard Church, which stood just three miles away. It was purchased from the Modissette family by Luray Caverns Corp and moved here to Luray Valley Museum in 2008. It was built around 1825 for a Mennonite congregation headed by Strickler family. Abraham Strickler and his family represented one of oldest Mennonite communities in the US – they arrived in the Shenandoah Valley around 1726 (this all comes together with the Bible on display in the exhibit). Abraham’s great grandson Jacob Strickler, 1770-1842 was a parochial school teacher and American folk artist known for fraktur.
Rod Graves is the curator and an owner of the Luray Caverns, and the fourth generation to own/operate Luray Caverns (the son of Ted Graves, who was the third generation, who died 2010).
More delight awaits: Unravel the mystery of the maze inside the one-acre ornamental garden at Luray Caverns. Rooted in myth, mazes have existed for centuries in countless forms, across many cultures around the world. They have been designed for entertainment, recreation, art, magic and meditation. At Luray Caverns, over 1,500 Dark American Arborvitae, eight feet tall and four feet wide, create a half-mile pathway enhanced with a misting fog (providing cooling and special effects). The twisting pathways lead past fountains and into a cave. At 40 points, the challenger must choose a direction to solve the riddle and emerge from the maze. An elevated platform provides relief for those who are hopelessly lost ($9/adults, $7/6-12, 540-843-0769).
This challenging two level ropes course consists of a series of real and imaginary obstacles designed to maximize the excitement of personal development.
An activity the whole family can experience together (you don’t need climbing experience or to be particularly physically fit), the course allows each participant to enjoy the thrill of doing something a bit out of their comfort zone but at their own pace.
Each trail consists of several poles that are connected by different acrobatic elements. The park incorporates a sophisticated safety system using ropes, belay devices, harnesses and helmets with trained personnel supervising every participant.
The combination of a Low and High Ropes Course enables participants to grow at an individual or team level, exploring risk, self-discovery communication, problem-solving, and coaching.
The Low Ropes Course presents opportunities for self-discovery and growth; the High Ropes Course challenges participants to expand their comfort zones—sometimes dramatically. Each is rich with discoveries, whether a person is climbing, supporting “on belay,” or finding an effective way to encourage a companion.
But wait, there is still more.
The Luray Singing Tower
Recognized as one of the country’s major carillons, the Luray Singing Tower, officially known as the Belle Brown Northcott Memorial, was erected in 1937 opposite Luray Caverns in memory of Colonel T.C. Northcott’s wife. The Luray Singing Tower, 117 feet high, contains a carillon of 47 bells. The largest bell weighs 7,640 pounds and is six feet in diameter, and is inscribed, “Glory to God, Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men. The smallest weighs 12 ½ pounds. In total, the bells weigh 36,170 pounds. Free 45-minute recitals are scheduled regularly throughout the spring, summer and fall (Visit www.gena.oprg or www.luraycaverns.com for the schedule.)
Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive: A short drive from the Caverns, the pastoral valley turns into a 300-square-mile wilderness playground in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park. Nine miles from Luray Caverns, the central entrance to Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park is located at Thornton Gap. Along the central section of Skyline Drive, between U.S. 211 and U.S. 33, are the main visitor facilities and the park’s highest elevations. One hundred and five miles of serpentine highway wind along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, among 60 mountain peaks and 75 overlooks affording breathtaking views. There are miles of hiking trails with pristine waterfalls and granite summits. Shenandoah is a sanctuary for more than 100 varieties of trees, 1,100 flowering plants, 200 species of birds and 43 species of mammals including black bear and white tail deer.
Monticello: An architectural masterpiece, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello gives testimony to its creator’s ingenuity and breadth of interests. Located on a mountaintop in Albemarle County, the house commands a view of the rolling Virginia countryside that Jefferson so dearly loved. It was here that he retreated from the pressures of public office, having served as governor of Virginia, minister to the court of Louis XVI of France, secretary of state, vice president, and ultimately the third president of the United States. Architecture endured as one of Jefferson’s chief delights. The house was built and subsequently remodeled over a period of 40 years, reflecting the pleasure he found in, “Putting up and pulling down.” Throughout are reminders of Jefferson’s thoughtful mind and keen interest in the scientific, including an entrance hall that functioned as a museum for fossils, a buffalo head, elk antlers, and a seven-day clock, which indicated the day in addition to the hour. No other house in America so accurately conveys the personality of its owner. Today, the architectural masterpiece is the only house in the United States on the United Nations’ prestigious World Heritage List of International Treasures.
New Market Battlefield: Never before, or since, has a college student body been called into pitched battle as were the VMI Cadets on May 15, 1864 (among them, 17-year old descendent of Thomas Jefferson who died). The Hall of Valor is a monument to those cadets and the American Civil War soldiers who showed courage and discipline in one of the war’s most poignant episodes, the Battle of New Market. Two award-winning films, one on the battle, the other on “Stonewall” Jackson’s famed 1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign, are presented in a 125-seat theater. Colorful dioramas emphasize incredible acts of endurance and resilience demonstrated by soldiers both North and South. Others experienced the war as well. Jacob and Sarah Bushong worked their family farm for 30 years before war turned their orchard into a battlefield and their home into a hospital. Today, the original farmstead reveals how this quiet community was changed by conflict. Restored wheelwright and blacksmith shops, a loom house, and summer kitchen convey 19th century pursuits on this typical valley farm. Scenic pathways lead to the “Field of Lost Shoes” and the high bluffs 200 feet above the graceful Shenandoah River.
Turn your visit into a resort getaway at Caverns Country Club Resort. Nestled in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains and overlooking the Shenandoah River, the setting creates one of the most scenic golf opportunities in the Mid-Atlantic region. High above the banks of the river, 6,499 yards of gently rolling fairways seem to touch the mountains with beautiful vistas of nearby farmlands. 18-hole, par 72 course. Call (540) 743-7111 for daily tee times and greens fees. Seasonal specials are available. The resort offers vacation packages for golfers and non-golfers which include special rates for lodging, golfing and dining.(Caverns Country Club Resort, 540-743-6551 or toll free at 888-443-6551).
There is also a modestly priced motel at Luray (540-743-6551 or toll free 888-941-4531)
Luray Caverns is 89 miles from Washington DC.
Luray Caverns, 970 U.S. Hwy. 211 West, Luray, VA 22835, 540-743-6551, www.luraycaverns.com.
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